Jesus, for us and for our salvation came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
And there’s the sentence in the Nicene Creed: “Jesus ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” And my goal for this sermon is for us to understand what that means.
There are really just two questions we are going to look at. First, what does it mean that Jesus is ascended? And second, how is his ascension relevant to your life . . . how is it relevant to you that Jesus is ascended, say tonight at 7:30, or tomorrow when you drive into work, or wherever and whenever you ever find yourself to be?
These are the two questions we are going to look at.
What Does It Mean That Jesus Is Ascended?
Okay, so first: What does it mean that Jesus is ascended?
Let me say a quick word about this sermon overall. This is one of those category sermons. It’s different from most because I’m trying to help you build a new category or to readjust a category you might already have. And therefore it’s going to feel heavy on information, so I just want to prime you for that, and also having been sick this past week, I was pretty heavily medicated when I wrote this sermon. So it might get interesting. Okay, let’s get started.
In a few minutes I’m going to read several passages from the Bible about the ascension but first, I want to go ahead and work on our categories right away.
It’s important, categorically, that we think about the ascension not as just a one-time event, but as an on-going status. It’s not just that Jesus once ascended; it’s that he is ascended.
Now, the ascension is an historical event, just like the resurrection. There was a moment when it happened in history. But the main way the Bible talks about the ascension of Jesus is not by talking about a one-time event that Jesus did, but the Bible mainly talks about the ascension as an on-going status of who Jesus is. The Bible talks mostly about what it means that Jesus is ascended. There are really only two passages that speak about the event of his ascension, and both are from Luke. In Luke 24:51, we read that after the resurrection, while Jesus was blessing his disciples, “he parted from them and was carried into heaven.” And then in Acts 1:9, Luke tells us that “[Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” That is how the Bible describes the ascension in terms of an event. That’s what happened at one moment in history. But all the other mentions of the ascension in the Bible are in terms of a status given to Jesus, and the most common way of saying it is that Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the Father.” That is what it means for Jesus to be ascended. The ascension is his promotion. It’s when he’s given the status of being exalted to the Father’s right hand. Listen to the way the Bible talks about it...
Ephesians 1:19–22, which we read earlier,
Paul wants us to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet …” [hear the status in that]
Acts 2:32–33, Peter is preaching,
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
So notice here, in these three passages, how the resurrection and the ascension of spoken of together. It is almost like they are two sides of the same coin. In Ephesians 1, Jesus is raised and seated at the Father’s right hand. In Acts 2, Peter says that Jesus is raised, and then he says, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God…” — which implies that he sees the resurrection and ascension as having the significance. Then in Romans 8, in one thought, Paul says that Jesus is the one who is raised, who is seated at the right hand of God.
The resurrection and ascension are held together.
Also, consider Philippians 2:9. In Philippians 2 is when Paul describes the incarnation and humiliation and death of Jesus — that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” and when he gets to verse 9, he doesn’t even mention the resurrection, but instead he just says, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . .” And when Paul says that God highly exalts Jesus it is like shorthand for him saying that Jesus is raised and ascended. The resurrection and ascension is the great vindication of who Jesus is. That is when Jesus is recognized to have the status for which he is worthy. That is when he is exalted — declared to be the Son of God as he is. He is Lord, King, Savior, Treasure. The ascension is about Jesus receiving that status.
Listen to Hebrews 1:3,
“After making purification for sins [speaking of his death], [Jesus] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” The resurrection isn’t mentioned explicitly here, the writer just says that Jesus assumes his status. He takes his seat.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
Jesus is our “high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven.”
Revelation 3:21, this is Jesus speaking,
“The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
You can hear it in these passages — the Bible talks a lot about the ascension, and in most every case the ascension is about who Jesus is. It’s about his status. He is the ascended one. He is the one seated at the Father’s right hand.
And as far as what Jesus does with this status, there are two main things that the Bible mentions. It’s that he prays for his people, and he reigns on his throne. We could do sermons on each of these, but let me just mention them now. The Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is our High Priest, and therefore Jesus ascended means Jesus praying for us. He is interceding for us and our faith.
The Bible also tells us that Jesus is our King, and therefore Jesus ascended means Jesus is reigning over his enemies. He is the king of Psalm 110 who is seated at God’s right hand until all his enemies are made his footstool. We heard that in the Ephesians 1 passage (and see it also in 1 Corinthians 15).
So as the ascended one, as the one seated at the Father’s right hand, Jesus prays for us and reigns. And there is so much more we could say about these, but for now suffice it to say that the accession of Jesus is important.
Beware of Two Pitfalls
The Bible is not shy when it comes to talking about Jesus as the ascended one, as the one seated at God’s right hand. And therefore, we shouldn’t be shy about it either. But sometimes I think we are. And I just want to talk about that for a second. This is the part of the sermon that doesn’t really flow. I just sort of threw it in. I think that we tend to downplay the ascension, not emphasize it as much as the Bible does, for a couple reasons. These are like two pitfalls in how we think about the ascension.
We tend to mix up the categories and think about the ascension mainly as an event, not as a status. (this is why I’ve really been repeating the status part so far).
The Bible, as we’ve seen, talks about the ascension mainly as a status, not mainly as a event. It’s not that one time Jesus ascended. It’s that Jesus is ascended, that he is seated at the Father’s right hand. That he is exalted.
And the problem for us mainly thinking about the ascension as an event, besides the fact that the Bible doesn’t do that, it that thinking about it mainly as an event just gets weird for us. It gets weird because we think about Jesus disappearing up in the clouds and we don’t know what to do with that. Luke and Acts talk about the event that way. Jesus was lifted up in the sky, and in a cloud he disappeared. But Luke doesn’t say that Jesus stayed in the cloud. That’s just how he left.
In the verses that talk about Jesus being in the heavenly places, like in Ephesians 1, it doesn’t mean that he’s in the sky, but instead heaven is the place where God is. And we should think of that not in terms of a piece of real estate in the universe, but as a dimension of reality that we can’t experience yet. (We actually talked about this about a year ago in the Acts 2 sermon. Go check out that sermon). But see, when we think of the ascension mainly as the event, it is that we tend to impose our own cosmology. We tend to impose what we know of the universe from satellite footage and Matt Damon in Mars and all that — and when we do that, it’s hard for us to imagine where Jesus fits in with all that. And we would not have this problem if we thought about the ascension the main way the Bible talks about the ascension. Not just as an event, but mainly as a status. The ascension is mainly meant to say something about who Jesus is.
The second pitfall in thinking about the ascension, which is related to the first, is that
we tend to think of the ascension as Jesus being up in the clouds and therefore, we don’t tend to think of him as being in a human body.
Again, the Bible uses cloud imagery to describe when Jesus left the first time, and Jesus is described as coming back on the clouds like places like. Matthew 24:30. Jesus says, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” So I understand how we can think about the clouds. I get that. But the clouds are more like his chauffeur, not his destination.
If we think about Jesus being in the clouds, it will impact the way we think about him. Consider this for a minute. When we think about clouds, or about people living in clouds, what we do we think? What kind of people live in clouds? The image in my mind is some kind of floating spirit. [Right?] Well, Jesus is not a floating spirit. In fact, one of the key things that Jesus has done as the ascended one is that he sends his Spirit here. So the Spirit is the Spirit, not Jesus. Jesus continues in his incarnation. Jesus is right now in a resurrected, glorified body. Which means, he is in a body like ours, except his is a perfect body. Right now, we are in a earthly body, in the image of Adam, the man of dust, but Jesus is in his heavenly body, a perfect body that will never die. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 15.
Remember That Jesus Has a Body — That He’s Real
And it’s really important that we remember Jesus is in a human body like us, because if we think of him as being a floating spirit, as something different from us, then over time he will seem less real to us.
And I’m convinced that one of the things we most need to know, and really believe, is that Jesus is real. That he’s not an idea, or simply a historical figure. But that he is a real person. One of the reasons I think that Jesus doesn’t have the impact in our lives that he should have is because we have sectioned him off in the category of ideas and advice that we can use or not use whenever we want. We’ve abstracted Jesus and therefore we’ve belittled his authority. But if we only understood that he is real, right? That in this moment, right now, Jesus is more real than any of us who are sitting in here. Like right now, Jesus is breathing like we are. Our lungs are working, we are inhaling and exhaling, and our hearts are beating. And somewhere, that exact same thing is happening to Jesus. He has lungs like us, except his are perfect lungs, and they are being filled with air right now, except it’s perfect air.
Somewhere that’s happening right now, in some dimension of reality — wherever God is, wherever the Father’s right hand is. Jesus is there and right now, he can place is hand over his heart just like you can, and he can feel his heart beat. Jesus can feel his heart beat like you can feel your heart beat, except that his heart is beating perfectly. Just like you can scratch your head and touch your skin, Jesus can scratch his head and touch his skin. Jesus is that real, and in order to for us understand his realness we need to recover the truth of his ascension. The whole fact that Jesus is ascended is that he stays who he is, and therefore we can think about him as a real person, because he is.
Alive and Active Like Someone You Know
And I know this can still be hard to grasp, whether it’s new for you or not. It’s still hard to grasp what Jesus is like right now, because we can’t see him. But one of the things that has helped me and my imagination is to think about Jesus being ascended like I think about other people I know who live at a distance from me. We all have people like that. There are people we know and love and maintain relationships with who live somewhere different place than we do. It’s easy for me to think this way because my parents and extended family are all back in North Carolina. And I’ll use my dad as an example.
My dad and granddad started a drywall business in Raleigh, North Carolina around 30 years ago. And growing up, my dad and I were close. I got to know him well. He coached me in baseball and we took trips together and I worked with him and my granddad some while I was in college. And during that time, we rode around a lot together and I got to see him do what he does. And right now, I have pretty good image in my mind of what he does. Of what he is like. Of how he talks, of how he thinks about things. Now, for almost a decade, I’ve lived in Minneapolis and he and my mom still live in Raleigh, and one of the things I do every now and then, is think about him and what he’s doing. And I can see him driving his truck. I can imagine my dad being himself wherever he is. I can imagine him being alive like me, doing things like I do things, talking like I talk — it’s just that he’s somewhere different. He is alive and active, he’s just not here.
And it’s the same way with Jesus. Jesus is alive and active too, he is just not here.
And just like I know my dad, and know what it’s like for my dad to be himself, we can know Jesus like that. In fact, that is what the Gospels are for. The Jesus who is ascended now is the same Jesus we meet in the Gospels, and who can only meet in the Gospels. He’s not a different kind of Jesus now than he was historically. The Jesus we meet in the witness of the Gospels, in the stories of his life and his words and his deeds, that is the Jesus who is ascended now, and is alive and real.
Now there are some differences. And one of the biggest differences about the distance between us and Jesus and the distance between us and other people we know is that Jesus has given us his Spirit. My dad can FaceTime me, but Jesus gave me his Spirit. Jesus is actually right beside me, in me, by his Spirit.
And his Spirit helps us know him. So that’s for your imagination.
Now, we have to get to this second question. We started by asking what it means that Jesus is ascended, and we’ve seen that the ascension is more about the status of Jesus — that it’s about who he is as the ascended one, the reigning one. Now, the second question, how is the ascension of Jesus relevant to your life?
How Is the Ascension of Jesus Relevant to Your Life?
There are a lot of different things to say here. We could talk more about Jesus praying for us, or about his reign. But the main thing I want to emphasize here in closing is that Jesus as the ascended man is the opposite of fallen man.
In Romans 5, the apostle Paul gives us two categories for humanity. There is Adam and there is Jesus. Adam is the first man, and he represents the old humanity under sin. Jesus is the last man, and he represents the new humanity under grace. Adam is humanity in sin and disobedience to God. Jesus is humanity faithful and righteous. Adam is humanity fallen. Jesus is humanity ascended.
We know about the fall. Most of us have heard that language. “The Fall” is the theological word for when Adam sinned and with him brought down the human race. God created us to image him, to resemble him and reflect his glory. That was our original purpose. That is why God made humans. But with Adam’s sin, we were torn away from that purpose. We were separated from God. Humanity is now, because of Adam, fallen. We are fallen. And ever since, sin confused and messed up life as it’s meant to be. And we all feel that. We are feel the fall of Adam.
And the ascension of Jesus, you see, is the great reversal of the fall of Adam for all who believe.
And just like we are affected by the fall of Adam, we should be affected by the ascension of Jesus. Because if you believe in Jesus, you are united to him, and that means, spiritually, you are ascended with him. And just like have been fallen with Adam, you are even more ascended with Christ.
Listen to Ephesians 2:4–6 . . .
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
That’s how the ascension is relevant to your life. Tonight at 7:30, tomorrow when you drive into work, wherever and whenever you are, if you have trusted in Jesus, you are actually ascended with him spiritually. You’re here, doing what you do. But because you are in him, spiritually you are where he’s at, and one day you will be where he’s at in person, because hey, he’s coming back.
And the best way to close this sermon is the Lord’s Table. Here at the Table, in communion, Jesus left us this supper as a way to remember him. The bread represents his body, and the wine represents his blood. And over the centuries there has been a lot of debate in terms of what actually happens with the bread and cup. Some think that it actually becomes the real body of Jesus and the real blood of Jesus. Others have though that it is strictly a memorial meal and nothing special happens. But at Cities, we take a little different view, commonly called the Reformed view. We think that the meal is a memorial in the sense that we remember Jesus by it — but also that we participate with the real presence of Jesus spiritually.
And this is how it connects with the ascension: When we take the bread and cup, we aren’t bringing Jesus back down here, but by his Spirit he is bringing us up with him spiritually. As we remember him, we remember that he has raised us up with him, that fallen as we are in Adam, we are risen in Christ. That in Adam and the fall we have been ripped away from meaning and joy, but in Jesus and his ascension, we become our truest selves, as God created us to be. In other words, we become his. That all makes this an other-worldly meal, not because Jesus comes here, but because he takes us up with him, and we remember that it’s with him that we belong.